Brandon Matthews doesn’t want to be known for one thing. But he is: The hug he gave a fan with Down syndrome whose involuntary shriek bothered his short putt that would have extended a playoff at the 2019 Argentina Open, where the winner received a spot in the 2020 Open Championship at Royal St. George’s. That’s the only reason anyone who remembers the ending to the story, told in heartwarming detail on “The Today Show,” knows who he is, as well as the only reason he’s getting his first PGA Tour start this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill.
Among people who actually follow golf’s minor leagues, Matthews is known for a different thing: A guy who hits it crazy far.
“I think the rest of my game is pretty good, so it’s a shame that gets overlooked sometimes,” Matthews says, who is 25 years old and built like an athlete at 6’4″ and 215 pounds. “But hopefully it’ll get recognized in due time.”
Philadelphia humble, Matthews is reluctant to talk about his life as a bomber. But his girlfriend, Danielle, sums up his game best. “He makes grown men giggle.”
Matthews’ agent, Drew Carr of Fidelity Sports Group, tells a story about testing equipment with a major manufacturer in Carlsbad. They were on the range hitting balls, having a nice time, when the technician excused himself to fetch a replacement launch monitor. The Trackman he was using either wasn’t calibrated correctly or had a failing battery. But after he returned with the new machine and got it set up, the tech’s mild agitation turned to wonder. With a 3-wood, the machine displayed Matthews’ ball speed as consistently around 186 to 188 miles per hour.
“We don’t have anyone on our global tour staff with that ball speed with a driver,” the technician stammered.
After flaming out on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2019, making just four of 21 cuts although leading in driving distance at 331.3 yards, Matthews hooked up with instructor Dale Gray, an Aussie who used to coach one of golf’s more successful short-knockers, Tim Clark. Gray works out of the Chelsea Piers driving range in Manhattan, and he says Matthews could fly a limited-flight ball over the net and into the Hudson River from the ground-floor bays. “At cruising speed he’s swinging the driver 130 mph and flying it 350 yards in the air,” Gray says. Carr says he’s clocked Matthews with a 200-mph ball speed with a driver.
Long drives are golf’s equivalent of fishing stories. It was this big someone indicates with their hands. Even official stats are problematic with the vagaries of altitude, turf conditions and the limited number of holes measured. But I can personally attest to Matthews’ power. I’ve been wondering what became of him since we were paired in the medal-play portion of the 2013 U.S. Amateur at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. I was then 31, newly married with an office job and about to start a family, and so essentially was a senior citizen among the Division I hotshots lining the range. But I was ready to see how my weekend game stacked up against the new generation. This feeling of pluck lasted exactly two holes, until the first par 5, when Matthews outdrove me by 110 yards. I paced it off. Across two days, he was consistently about a buck ahead of me.
One of the few times I wrestled away the honors from Matthews, I hit a solid (for me) and well-placed (for anyone) driver on a dogleg-left par 4. “Three-iron at his ball,” Matthews’ caddie said oblivious to my feelings. The tee shot whistled just past mine, and inside I wept.
Matthews would go on to make the quarterfinals of that Amateur, won by Matthew Fitzpatrick. Earlier that summer, Matthews played his way into first-alternate for the U.S. Open at Merion, but did not get in. After graduating from Temple University, he turned pro in 2016 and won his second-career start on PGA Tour Latinoamerica. Despite all this talent, he’s earned his first career PGA Tour start not because of his game but because of his character, as the Palmer family recognized in his gesture in Argentina what Arnie might’ve done.
Yet I’m still haunted. “Be brutally honest with me,” I now ask Matthews. “Am I the shortest hitter you’ve ever played with in a sanctioned event?”
“No, definitely not. You’re not giving yourself enough credit,” Matthews laughs. I have the feeling he’s treating me like he did the Argentine fan. It’s OK, bud, it’s just the Open.
“Have you ever played with anyone who’s longer than you?”
Matthews recalls nine practice holes he once played with Cam Champ. “That’s about as close as it gets. He might get me on a firmer day with how penetrating his ball-flight is. But soft conditions with no wind, my carry distance might be a little more than his.”
‘He makes grown men giggle.’ —Matthews’ girlfriend on how far he hits a golf ball
Of course, Champ is a year younger and already has two PGA Tour wins. To catch up, Matthews has dedicated himself to a swing overhaul to improve his consistency and save his lower back. Dale Gray describes the original move as: “He rolled the club inside on the takeaway, then at the top lifted his arms up to where the face was quite open, then on the way down got steep and stuck on the inside, then would extend early with his body through impact to create some room. His miss was high and right. Obviously, with his ball speed, any miss is going to be pretty much off the golf course.
“Now he’s got the club more in front of his body on the way down,” Gray says. “With his amazing athleticism, his ability to maximize the full potential of his hands, arms and body working together, it’s fun to watch.” Gray has also thrown the 3-wood and 5-wood out of Matthews’ bag. “When he can carry his 2-iron 290, there’s no need for those.”
After scouting Bay Hill, Matthews’ options at the 555-yard par sixth will probably either be 2-iron off the tee followed by a 3-iron into the green, or a driver followed by a 7- or 8-iron. Matthews also has a number of par 4 greens he might try to drive. Carr shakes his head no, playing the part of beleaguered agent. “We just got to get the horse in the starting paddock.”
Barring a sensational week at Bay Hill that changes his schedule, Matthews is preparing for the 2020 season of PGA Tour Latinoamerica. “There’s a new rule this year where three wins equates instant promotion to the Korn Ferry, so I’ve got my eye on that,” he says.
That would be something to be known for.